Why becoming a father can be so different the second time around.
Fatherhood the second time around.
twenty years ago, I was the first of my friends to become a parent, an experience that was, to put it mildly, sobering. I was in my late 20s and had just closed out more than a decade of hanging around with a hard-partying Toronto crowd of wannabe artists and musicians. I still dreamed of writing the next Great Canadian Novel, but, like many of my bohemian friends, I worked late hours in a downtown bar.
Everything changed when my daughter, Petra, was born. I traded black jeans for comfy flannel pants and literature in translation for cardboard books chronicling the adventures of bright felt animals. My definition of an all-nighter went from closing down a booze can at sunrise to cleaning spit-up off my T-shirt at 4 a.m.
I’m not complaining: Becoming a dad was the best thing that had ever happened to me. I had rejected almost every demand of proper adulthood until the day my daughter looked up at me from her hospital swaddling cloth, her loving eyes and total helplessness announcing an obvious fact: She didn’t need a party buddy; she needed a parent—right then.
Unfortunately, my own party buddies didn’t share my enthusiasm for parenthood. Every new parent learns that your childless friends will love holding a warm bundle and inhaling that intoxicating newborn scent—for about 15 minutes. When it was time for me or my girlfriend to soothe Petra by walking her around the kitchen for two hours, those same friends made their excuses and escaped to familiar habitats: the must-try Asian-fusion restaurant or the martini bar that ingeniously combined cranberry and apple. (Hey, it was the ’90s.)
When Petra was eight months old, her mother went back to work, which made me the primary caregiver— and the only stay- at- home dad in my progressive downtown neighbourhood. How to fill our days? (Trust me, you can hear “Baby Beluga” only so many times h
before plotting to drown Raffi.) Luckily, it was summer and we lived near a park. Suddenly, those parents pushing mega-strollers through the playground—once hazy figures in my peripheral vision—were the most interesting people in the city.
I overcame my natural shyness and soon chatted my way into a neighbourhood “mothers group.” Every week we gathered in a living room with our kids, mugs of milky tea and a pent-up need to compare notes on teething and tantrums. One thing quickly became clear: We were all terrified of messing up our children. We’d learned, from decades of pop culture and TV psychologists, that if we failed to be perfect nurturing parents, our adventurous, eager-to-learn toddlers would grow into emotionally stunted adults who surfed from one psychiatrist’s couch to the next.
To meet this ideal, we all turned to some form of child-centred parenting, a then emerging philosophy that stressed positive affirmation over punishment. Controversially, it also prioritized children’s needs over their parents’ occasionally diverging inclinations. Letting a baby “cry it out” was frowned upon, as were formula, guilt trips and expressing any impatience in the little one’s presence. Sometimes the line between “needs” and “wants” blurred. If Petra wanted to sleep in our bed, I rolled over and made room. And if I felt like screaming when she wouldn’t go down for a nap, I gritted my teeth and put the Raffi CD back on.
Flash forward 20 years. Petra is in university, I’m in a loving marriage and I’m finally a full-time author and writer. I’m also the father of a new baby, little Charlie, a force of nature with periwinkleblue eyes and the sweetest smile. Fatherhood the second time around is still full of brain-seizing, heart-squeezing emotions—fear during Charlie’s first cold, joy sparked by his gurgly giggles—but it’s also definitely easier, like slipping on a favourite tailored jacket with old love notes in the pockets.
It’s true that you worry less about your second child. Having shepherded Petra through the harrowing first two years, I’m less inclined to worry when Charlie hits a bump in the road—or his head against mine. Babies cry and throw up and get fevers, toddlers eat dirt and throw tantrums that would get an adult arrested and sometimes parents get frustrated at the end of a long day. It’s also true that it’s a lot easier to walk a teething baby in the middle of the night when you’re in your late 20s than in your late 40s, but I can deal with that.
My personal circumstances aren’t the only thing that has changed. Society has caught up to many of the practices that seemed radical 20 years ago. Birthing centres in cities are now common, as is the option to have a doula or midwife in the delivery room. Changing gender roles and flexible work arrangements encourage fathers to share parenting duties, including staying at home with their babies. Today, four of my wife’s new-mother friends divide child-care duties with their husbands.
This expanded role for fathers is reflected in movies and TV shows like What to Expect When You’re Expecting, This Is 40, Modern Family and the reality show Modern Dads. Twenty years ago, I wanted to scream every time someone called me “Mr. Mom” after the terrible Michael Keaton film. Now, dads with baby carriers are everywhere. The cultural pendulum has also swung away from overdoing child-centred parenting. A new group of childhood experts warn against the dangers of too much nurturing, which they refer to, in ominous quotation marks, as “helicopter parenting”: the tendency of anxious parents to swoop into action at the first sign of distress in the sandbox. Today’s parents are more likely to impose bedtimes and schedules and let their babies occasionally cry it out. They’re also more open to expressing the fears and frustrations of parenthood, as evidenced by the popularity of the bedtime book Go the F--k to Sleep and a slew of blogs like “Scary Mommy” and “People I Want to Punch in the Throat,” where parents vent about the demands of childrearing with caustic humour.
As much as I find the honesty refreshing, I hope that parents don’t resort to a rigid, schedule-based form of child care. Babies don’t fake emotions to get attention. If they cry, it’s because they’re scared or uncomfortable and have no other way to ask for help. It’s a parent’s job to soothe those fears and guide a child toward independence at a pace that works for everyone in the family.
I’m reminded of this give-and-take every night, when Charlie and I play a game in the bath. He kicks off into the open water, my hand supporting his back, and as he nears the far end of the tub, his eyes grow wide with excitement. It’s exciting out there on his own, but it’s scary. He looks back at me, and when he sees my encouraging smile, he kicks his little legs again, out into the open water. n
Twenty years ago, I wanted to scream every time someone called me “Mr. Mom.” Now, dads with baby carriers are everywhere.